- Black Africans in Renaissance Europe
Earle and Lowe's volume on black Africans in the Renaissance is a study long overdue, especially for anyone who has ever faced the student query, "what was life like for Africans in early modern Europe?" Black African slaves first arrived in Portugal in substantial numbers in the 1440s and continued to be transported to Europe for roughly the next 150 years. They came to represent up to seven percent of some early modern urban populations. The editors argue that there exists no lack of sources for studying black Africans in this time period; Lowe's introduction states that "black Africans can be found in almost every type of record: documentary, textual and visual; secular and ecclesiastical; Northern and Southern European: factual and fictional" (3). Despite this abundance of material, however, even a cursory look at their bibliography reveals that very few similar works that comprehensively examine the black African experience in early modern Europe have been previously undertaken. The pieces in this volume aim to demonstrate that there is much more to be said about the lives of Africans beyond traditional discussions of slavery or dramatic characters like Othello. Africans were present in Europe as ambassadors, humanists, pilgrims, and even rulers.
The essays discuss a wide range of topics. As a few examples, Kate Lowe's essay — which would offer a useful introduction to this material for teaching purposes — considers the various stereotypes used to exclude Africans from mainstream European life and culture, such as images of black Africans as disfigured, savage, lazy, drunk, and overly sexualized. Jean Michel Massing demonstrates how, despite Europeans' increased contact with black Africans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, European maps continued to use traditional formulae to depict Africans as monstrous and strange. According to Annemarie Jordan, slaves in the Lisbon court of Catherine of Austria functioned as visual symbols of royal power, serving as representations of the frontiers of imperial rule. To illustrate her point, her essay discusses a striking 1553 painting of Joanna of Austria placing her hand on the head of a black page in much the same way that Queen Elizabeth places her hand on the globe in her well-known Armada portrait. Debra Blumenthal's fascinating exploration of the formation and function of the black confraternity the Casa dels Negres in fifteenth-century Valencia demonstrates how some Africans were able to achieve a degree of corporate identity in early modern Spain. John Brackett argues that Alessandro de' Medici, the first Duke of Florence between 1529 and 1537, had a black African mother. Though writers condemned his rule as tyrannical, Brackett posits that such criticisms stemmed not from his race but his peasant class, demonstrating that "racism did not exist intellectually in the same way that it does today" (325).
The volume gives both the exciting and frustrating impression of scholars tentatively exploring a new field. Many of the articles work on more of a descriptive or informative level rather than an argumentative one. The authors often extrapolate from fragmentary evidence presented for the first time, illuminating the [End Page 569] fact that debates on this topic are still forming and that "much more research must be conducted before any firm conclusions can be drawn" (300). Though the collection aims to focus on the connections between representations and "real" Africans and their lives (4), such a task proves extremely challenging despite the authors' valiant efforts. Though the editors are optimistic about the possibility of exploring "a black European identity" (47), many of the sources on which these articles are based unfortunately still record and reflect white voices rather than black ones, in the end continuing to tell us much more about the Europeans that observed black Africans than Africans themselves. Nevertheless, the volume offers an array of insights into a subject that has long deserved more attention than it has received.